For more than 20 years, Pope John Paul II showed a way to work for the defeat of totalitarianism. It was not by armies, although it relied on the threat of American power to keep the dictators from military adventures. And it was not by appeasement, although it knew how to practice patience when it had to. At its deepest, the pope's vision required simply that we refuse government by the lie, that we name and know things for what they are, and his Catholic call for democratic reform seemed to have effect everywhere, from Paraguay to Poland.
Everywhere, that is, except the Middle East, where from Algeria to Afghanistan dictatorships flourished during his pontificate. But the problem may not be that John Paul II's method failed there. The problem may be that it was never tried — not even by John Paul II.
Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the Vatican has never had a clear idea how to respond to tensions in the area. Too much seemed to swirl out of control. There were questions of how best to protect the various ancient Catholic populations, delicate relations with the Orthodox churches, and complex disputes about ownership of the holy places in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Galilee. And tinting everything was the rising Arab-Israeli conflict. For the Roman diplomats, the disproportion was obvious: Supporting Israel risked the murder of Christians in Islamic countries; supporting the Arabs risked a stern note from the Israeli ambassador.
The Vatican was never anti-Israeli, and it certainly never condoned or praised terrorism. But, bit by bit, Rome's advisers and experts on the Middle East came to be those whose first impulse was to take the Arab, and particularly the Palestinian, side in any dispute with Israel or the United States. Relations were formed with Islamic and Baathist governments, and as the Christian communities of the Middle East weakened — their decline over the last 50 years has been precipitous — protecting the little that remained came to seem even more important.